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Book Review

CIA peddles drugs while US media act as cheer leaders

WHITE OUT: THE CIA, DRUGS AND THE PRESS By Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair. Published by Verso, London, UK & New York, US. 1998. pp.408. Hbk: 22.00 pounds.
Zafar Bangash

The US makes a big deal of its seriousness to fight drugs. It has a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) whose agents are stationed in at least 32 countries around the world. It also circulates a list of countries each year which are considered not to be fighting vigorously to prevent drug trafficking.

To be sure, there is big money in drug business. The United Nations Drug Control Programme reported that in 1997, worldwide drug trade amounted to more than US$500 billion. Ten years earlier, it was $85 billion; one-sixth of what it is today. By the year 2014, worldwide drug trade is expected to equal the total gross domestic product of the US - $7 trillion. Neither the US nor its banks can afford to bypass such enormous sums. In fact, several commentators have suggested that major western banks are behind moves to legalise drug money in order to stay afloat. Similarly, western governments want to bring this money into circulation as they see enormous tax benefits from it.

Be that as it may, in White Out, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair provide another dimension of the drug trade that is both startling and informative. They start with the story of Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter whose explosive investigative pieces in August 1996 on the CIA’s role in selling cocaine in the streets of Los Angeles led to great disquiet in the African-American community.

Webb’s thoroughly-researched pieces were at first met with deafening silence by the establishment media - the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times - and later rubbished as sensational, and without foundation. Even more astonishing, the Mercury, far from standing up to defend its own reporter, distanced itself from Webb’s series under pressure. Webb was asked to discontinue the series and pressured to resign. He sued the paper and later reached an out-of-court settlement with it.

Cockburn and St Clair point out that the mainstream media’s only source for dismissing Webb’s stories was the CIA itself. The spy agency could hardly be expected to admit that it was involved in drug peddling. Ralph McGehee, a former CIA officer, is quoted by the authors: “We’d go down and lie to them [US congress] regularly. In my 25 years, I have never seen the agency tell the truth to a congressional committee” (p.110). If the CIA can lie under oath to the US congress and get away with it, why would it not lie about its involvement in drug trafficking to journalists? Some of them were quite eager to print every lie churned out by the agency.

The CIA has also carried out numerous assassination attempts on foreign leaders. It has been successful in some - Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic (1961); Patrice Lumumba of the Congo/Zaire (1961); Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam (1963); Mohammed Mossadeq of Iran (overthrown, not assassinated in 1953), and Salvadore Allende of Chile (1973) etc.

In other attempts--against Fidel Castro of Cuba, for instance--it has failed. The authors quote the former CIA director William Colby as saying that “Castro gave [George] McGovern in 1975 a list of attempts on his life - there were about thirty by that time - as he said, by the CIA. McGovern gave it to me and I looked through it and checked it off against our records and said we could account for about five or six... “ (p.101). That a former CIA director would admit to six attempts on the life of the leader of another country in such a nonchalant manner shows brazenness of the highest order. Imagine if Cuba had carried out six attempts on the life of a US president!

In March 1998, nearly two years after Webb’s series appeared, the CIA’s inspector general, Fred Hitz, admitted before the US house of representatives that the agency maintained relationships with companies and individuals that the CIA knew to be involved in drug trafficking (p. 49).

Even more astonishing, Hitz admitted that the agency had requested and received in 1982 clearance from the US justice department during Ronald Reagan’s first term in office as president, not to report any knowledge it might have of drug dealing by CIA ‘assets’. The word ‘asset’ needs clarification. In the murky world of espionage, the CIA draws up a fine distinction between what it calls agents - people employed full-time by the CIA - and those whom it terms as ‘assets’ - people who do the agency’s dirty work on contract for periodic payouts.

The distinction is largely academic but it allows the CIA to deny involvement in certain operations. This is what the agency was doing in Los Angeles where its ‘assets’ - Norwin Meneses, Oscar Danilo Blandon - were involved in selling crack cocaine to raise money for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

The Contra connection was a murky affair, according to the authors. In 1981, Reagan had signed Directive-17 to help the Contras overthrow the legitimate government in Nicaragua headed by the Sandinista. A year later, congress prohibited any US aid to the Contras whereupon the Reagan administration, the CIA and the US National Security Council turned to drug traffickers to raise funds.

But it would be wrong to assume that the CIA entered into the drug trade only in the eighties, or to fund the Contras only - Reagan’s favourite terrorist outfit in Central America. The CIA, as Cockburn and St Clair reveal, had been in this business right from the beginning. In fact, even before it came into existence, its predecessors, the OSS and the Office of Naval Intelligence, were involved with criminals. One such criminal was Lucky Luciano, the most notorious gangster and drug trafficker in America in the forties.

Luciano was plucked out of prison and sent to Italy during the second world war to recruit people in the war against Mussolini. He was given a free hand to liaise with the mafia, hence such a strong mafia presence in the US. Luciano gathered all the seedy characters around him and American largesse flowed freely.

The second world war also brought other criminal characters in contact with the US. Some of the most notorious Nazi scientists were brought straight from their labs in the concentration camps to work for the CIA. They not only helped produce the atomic bomb, these scientists also worked on mind-control drugs, and chemical and biological weapons. One Jewish scientist, Dr Sidney Gottlieb of New York, was notorious for his experiments that outstripped anything the others did. Klaus Barbie, the ‘butcher of Lyons’, was saved from the gallows, taken to Bolivia and given a new identity to work for the CIA.

Cockburn and St Clair say that the CIA carried out mind-altering experiments on blacks and used other drugs to determine their effects. These blacks, all American citizens, were kept unaware of what drugs were being injected into them. Some of them suffered horribly.

The CIA’s involvement in drug trafficking closely dovetails America’s adventures overseas - from Indo-China in the sixties to Afghanistan in the eighties. As Alfred McCoy states in his book: Politics of Heroin: CIA complicity in the Global Drug Trade, beginning with CIA raids from Burma into China in the early fifties, the agency found that ‘ruthless drug lords made effective anti-communists.’ He went on: ‘During a major operation, everything is subordinated’ to the main purpose.

This was also the case in Afghanistan, which has had disastrous consequences for Pakistan, conduit for US arms to Afghanistan. While the authors state that a number of Afghan leaders were involved in the drug trade, they single out Gulbuddin Hikmatyar for special treatment. It is easy to see why. He was the most uncompromising of all the Afghan leaders who even refused to meet Reagan during a visit to New York in 1986.

Despite the enormous detail, much of it fascinating, provided by the authors, there is one area where they have clearly erred. Their claim (p. 269) that Zia was assassinated “by a bomb planted (probably by senior military officers)” is off the mark. The fact is that it was a CIA job.

General Hamid Gul, former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), told this writer that after Zia’s plane crash, the US air force came to conduct an inquiry. He said the ‘inquiry’ was very superficial and a few weeks later, Robert Oakley, then US ambassador in Islamabad, gave him a copy of the air force report which stated that the C-130 plane had crashed because of dirt in one of its engines. According to general Gul, Pakistan had managed to retrieve two engines intact and when McDonnell-Douglas - the plane’s manufacturers - carried out their tests, they rejected the dirt theory completely.

Oakley later came to general Gul requesting that the report be returned to him. The general refused, saying that it had already been forwarded to the Pakistan air force. General Hamid Gul then wrote to the air force chief, air marshal Hakimullah, requesting that the report stay in Pakistan. The air marshal agreed.

Given this background, one is forced to ask: is their claim about Zia’s assassination deliberate disinformation or based on faulty undertanding? True, it forms a minor part of the book but it is important that accuracy be maintained. While the authors have done a remarkable job in exposing the CIA’s dirty deeds, its involvement in drug trafficking and the cheer-leading of the establishment media in the US, there are certain areas in which they have been less than forthright.

Similarly, they have been deliberately vague about the heroin laboratories in Pakistan. These were set up by the CIA. In fact, there is considerable evidence to suggest that Vincent Cannistraro, a veteran CIA operative, who took charge of disbursing aid to the Afghan mujahideen in 1984, was instrumental in setting up such labs with devastating results for Pakistan. The authors treat Cannistraro with kid gloves and do not mention his role in promoting heroin production in Pakistan.

All this brings us to the point about relying too much on the western media. Even the most anti-establishment journalists tend to mislead in certain respects. Muslims would do well to remember that they have no choice but to be very careful. As the noble Qur’an states so clearly: “O you who are committed to Allah! When a fasiq comes to you with some news, verify it …” (49: 13).

Muslimedia: January 16-31, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 22

Ramadan 28, 14191999-01-16

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